What better day than Thanksgiving for a blog post about body image, acceptance, and radical self-love? Thank you Jessica. This conversation was meaningful to me on several layers, not the least of which is the importance of dialogue in breaking down the status quo.
Jessica and I sat down last week to have a preliminary conversation about the book, The Body Is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor. I asked Jess for permission to share parts of our conversation and she was gracious enough to say yes. It’s just a guess, but I figure we aren’t the only two people who have difficult relationships with our bodies. The hope is that by sharing our thoughts and feelings we can move all types of bodies forward in acceptance of self and other.
This post is long, I know. Grab a cuppa and take your time, maybe a few days. Jess and I would love to hear what you have to say so please leave a comemnt at the bottom. We'll respond.
First Jess, I want to thank you for sending this book to me. It is astounding, and contains far more important insight than we can cover in one blog post or even several. I’m excited to talk about this book now and at least one more time in the future, but I encourage potential readers to get it! (Buy here on Amazon.) Reading it was an eye- and heart-opening experience. You saw the author speak near your home in Madison, WI, right?
Jessica: Yes, at my favorite book store, A Room of One’s Own. Sonya had so much authentic charisma. Her mouth opened and it was so powerful, she was speaking right to my core. As I sat and listened, it felt like something I had to share. I was thinking, Who do I know?, and I thought of you.
Tracey: Thank you. As someone who would like to deny that I’ve had body image issues for most of my life, the fact is that I do. I have probably met literally only one woman in my entire lifetime who said she didn’t that I believed.
Jessica: Yes, one that you believed.
Tracey: Exactly. This topic, food and body image, is hard to talk about. Hard to write about too. When I started working on my memoir, I was writing about Olivia’s eating disorder. That particular manifestation of her illness triggered every insecure molecule in my body. As a mom, I thought about my relationship to my body, about how I acted towards it in front of her, how she was acting toward her body. That was the early perspective in my memoir: food, weight, body image issues. I ended up becoming so agitated writing from that point of view, I set the book aside. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was a big part of my decision to stop writing. I was resistant to the idea of telling the whole story through that lens. But, now that I have distance, I would still like to deny how large a part of the story it is, but can’t.
When I first read the term body terrorism, I bristled, feeling it was extreme. We live in a world of real terrorism. But it’s true. I have been a terrorist toward myself, in my mind and out loud, about my body and how I struggle with it. We learn this attitude from the beginning, it’s pre-verbal. I can’t untangle all the ways I got negative and harmful messages about my body, and society, of course, perpetuates it. I had a visceral reaction until I accepted it was true. I wondered if you had any kind of reaction.
Jessica: For me the reaction started when I heard her speak. Sonya had truths I needed to hear. I felt open, but it felt scary. How she uses language is different. I felt like it pierced me. I didn’t feel an aversion, rather, felt I needed to be listening to this woman. The first thing I wrote down was, Who benefits from this horrible thought I have about myself? It felt like a radical cracking open of my thinking. Then I wrote, Uplug from that system. I don’t think I had admitted to myself how much internalized self-judgment I have until I got exposed to her and her messages. I thought I was more evolved than this. Part of why is because so much of my terrorism toward myself is silent. I think I was discounting or not even aware of my 24/7 inner monologue—the weird thoughts and judgments that I have about myself. Now I’m aware.
Tracey: I feel you. When Olivia was little, I had the constant self-flagellation and thoughts about what’s the right thing to say and do. It feels impossible to prevent our kids from buying in to the oppressive system. Having been the kid who was made fun of and called names, that is so painful. I didn’t want that for my daughter. But she was overweight young, and later I had to take ownership of that. At the time, and still, it's so confusing. Bring it up or not, and how. I always approached the topic from a loving place, I didn’t want her to be hurt the way I was, but, in some ways, I created another level of hurt because it was buying into the system. It was me saying, "Fit into this mold or you’ll be hurt," which also turned out to come true.
Jessica: My child, Benson, was a totally normal size. That was not an issue for them. I learned from them, saw that once they were full, they stopped eating. It was incredible. They didn’t have that thing where we eat past the point of comfort. I got a "clean your plate" message from my grandma. But Benson wasn’t like that, and I thought we were in the clear. I found out later that they were getting teased at school even though they were in the normal range, even though I felt like I was more conscious than my mom. Not to blame her—my mom—but, we’d say to each other, if we saw someone of a certain size we’d say, “Shoot me if I ever get that big.” What the fuck? (Tracey: oh, totally.) It wasn’t a reflection of our judgment of that person. It was our fear of getting past the point of being acceptably fat.
Tracey: Absolutely. Every message, from Mom to Dad to classmates to friends’ moms. The point is that I got a message from literally everyone about my body, the size of it, don’t let it get that big or bigger than it is or it’s already too big or something. Everywhere I went I got a negative message of some kind about my body along with the understanding that I was walking an invisible line, that my experience could be much worse. I’m totally with you. It was like, I’m still in the range of acceptable fatness, but if I cross over, just shoot me. I got messages like that, and said them, too.
Jessica: Thanks for saying that because I feel shame around this. In so many ways, my mom had such a healthy perspective, but she was exposed to the same conditioning. We’re trying to do better each generation, but it wasn’t all in my control. Both outside influences and genes and life experiences, I couldn’t control it.
Tracey: Many days still I have a debate with myself about my body. I gained so much weight when Olivia got sick. That’s how I coped, I was already a larger size, then she got sick and I gained 40 pounds. By my own standards, I’m bigger, and I say to myself, What does this mean? Well, it doesn’t mean anything. The only person spending any time thinking about it is me, judging myself, comparing myself. On bad days my thoughts run away with me. I really appreciated when you wrote to me the other day, saying among other stuff that you’re fat, and I wrote you back saying you’re not fat. And you responded that it’s a term you’re trying to own. I respect that, but again, I’m confused because in the history of my experience being called fat, by self or other, is derogatory. It’s pretty much one of the worst things you can say to a person in our culture, especially here in Hollywood. Fat is the worst thing you can be. Certainly, it is not the worst, but here, yes. So I respect your ownership, but I think it’s being mean to ourselves so it’s a struggle for me.
Jessica: By saying it, I wasn’t trying to be mean to myself.
Tracey: Yes, I know.
Jessica: I’m accepting myself as I am right now. I don’t mean, Oh I’m gross or bad, that’s just my body type today. I feel like for me to claim a label is totally different than being called one by others. When I’m using the word, I’m taking away the power of name-calling. It’s not me calling myself a name, it’s me saying that I am fat right now. I can’t really say I’m okay with it, though. (laughs) I wish I could. I resist it. This is another lesson I learned from Benson. I like euphemisms like chubby, pudgy, and curvy. To be fat is something we’re not supposed to say. I’d rather own it for myself. To not would be to deny, which feels less healthy. I also feel like, can I accept myself today if I’m in denial? I want to strip “fat” of the derogatory connotation. It’s my self-talk and awareness.
Tracey: I appreciate, too, that Sonya presents it in terms of accepting THE BODY. Until we can accept every type of body, we’re never going to accept ourselves, we’re never going to have the environment we want if we can’t accept every type of body, like disabled, fat, LGBTQ. I never thought of it in terms of literal body parts. It’s powerful.
Jessica: It really is. Pretending never felt good either. I hope part of my practice can be rejecting what others think I need to be. The likelihood of radical change to the composition of my body is small. I’d like to be more fit, stronger. As far as my body, I want to stop thinking this is temporary. One of the silent things I think is, I’m just about to change this. Relative to weight or working out for health reasons.
Tracey: Yeah, I started working out with a trainer over summer. It was getting harder for me to do certain things, like get up off the floor, and knowing I’m going on a trip and don’t want to slow people down because I’m not taking good care of myself. It’s such a fine line. Lots of times I went to the gym and I was just happy to be there, to be physically willing and able. That was a big change from past experiences.
Jessica: To get to a health perspective is daily work. Undoing that conditioning.
Tracey: It certainly is.
Jessica: I like how Sonya writes about an invitation to curiosity. I’m thinking out loud, maybe I can utilize this in my process instead of getting locked into a story. I can use curiosity: What’s happening, what thoughts am I having. I can observe bodily sensations, without attaching a story to it. I found this helpful with anxiety, but never used it for self-love, or my thought process for my body. I want to think about that. She puts questions out there for us.
Tracey: Yeah, she asks what does x, y, or z look like for you. One that jumps out at me: In what ways have you been asked to apologize for your body? That’s a huge question. I didn’t do this when I was younger, but now, I will sometimes jump to apologizing before anyone gets the chance to say something negative.
Tracey: Yeah, I’m conscious of ways I‘ve jumped the gun. Even if someone was planning on thinking of it, I already denigrated myself and made an apology for my body being too big, so they wouldn’t have to. I’ve been called out on it a couple times.
Jessica: That’s great.
Tracey: I guess. (laughs) It didn’t feel great at first. When someone calls you on it, you’re like, Yeah, that’s really fucked up. Why am I talking to myself that way?
Jessica: I want to share a similar example. I was getting dressed this morning, and I pulled on jeans and a tank top and said to myself, I look so bloated. I was thinking that I haven’t seen you in a while. I was feeling like I look like I‘ve gained weight. Whether I have or not, I had this whole inner conversation about what I should or shouldn’t say to you. But why? It’s barely even a conscious thing. I’m just starting to learn how much of that I do.
Tracey: That self-talk. It’s not like we’re looking in the mirror saying how beautiful we are.
Jessica: I’m trying to do some of that. It sounds a little cheesy.
Tracey: It only sounds cheesy because we never do it! I think it’s exactly what we don’t do for ourselves. My first reaction is that I don’t deserve nice words. That has to be overcome to then be able to say something positive and not have an initial shame reaction, like eye rolling. Our bodies are awesome. They are fantastic! But our first reaction is blech. I learned from Brené Brown not to talk to myself differently than I would my my best friend. It’s hard.
Jessica: God, we don’t do that at all. If I did and admitted it, we think people might say something. We tell ourselves a whole story around that. I appreciate how Sonya talks about the “default body.”
Tracey: Yes. She talks about the idea of “normal.” Said who? How did that become true? As with so many things, if you’re outside the bell curve, you don’t fit in. We don’t see images representative of all bodies anywhere.
Jessica: I think of myself as progressive. When I see an image on Facebook, I’ll see something positive, but what I consider subversive, like a large woman in little clothing, I’ll sometimes hesitate to click Like. I do this mental thing..how subversive is this and am I comfortable with people seeing that I like it? I’m not proud. It’s an example of that internal monologue and the way I censor myself. I don’t care if someone knows I like it, but I still hesitate.
Tracey: Thank you again Jess for your open heart and willing attitude. This conversation is important. I hope it will open people's eyes to some ways in which they might not be cultivating self-love in their lives. Can't wait to pick up where we left off!
Jessica: Me, too. It's one thing to sit in an audience at a book event taking notes or even to read the book and have my own thoughts, but having an open conversation with a safe friend takes my learning and growth to another level.
Happy Thanksgiving. I'm grateful to each one of you for your presence in my life.